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The Smartest Test Takers I Know


It’s been an eventful spring. My Compass colleagues and I have given dozens of webinars to audiences around the country, as thirst for strategic guidance on testing is greater than ever. Since March, pandemic-related upheaval in college admission testing has left families confused and frustrated as they attempt to reconcile their personal timelines and decisions with those of the ACT, College Board, and colleges they are considering. With every presentation, our purpose has been to help students contextualize these changes, individualize their plans, and chart a simplified course for the year ahead.

The smartest test takers from the class of 2022 are already emerging, and no, strong test scores are not the only way to spot them. We encounter such students every day, and they stand out in 5 key ways. Encouraging these important traits will help students understand how their approach over the next year can produce successful testing outcomes as they adapt to the changes confronting them, including uncertainty in test site availability through the fall, the debut of online exams, and a growing field of test optional schools.

They Are Pragmatic

Pragmatic college applicants don’t underestimate or overestimate the importance of testing. They remain practical about it, uninfluenced by the emotional noise around them. Instead of lamenting what they can’t control, these students matter-of-factly accept testing as a relevant — but not all-consuming or defining — component of their high school record. They determine if and how testing can serve their needs rather than dash their dreams, and proceed accordingly.

The most significant policy change ushered in by the pandemic has been the rise of test optional schools. Students should trust the sincerity of this option while recognizing that, while a test optional policy makes applying easier, it does not make a college less competitive. A test score is one part of holistic review, a component that delivers a standardized, familiar metric to busy admissions officers tackling a pile of hard decisions.

Many test optional policies are temporary (in some cases applicable to just the class of 2021 for now) and in direct response to the spate of test site cancelations. The tone of each policy differs by college, and in ways that are found only in the nuance of the school’s statement. Columbia, for example, announced, “If students have completed testing and can submit SAT or ACT results, we encourage them to do so as we believe this information can be a valuable addition in our review process.” With that, Columbia suggests that scores, while optional if test seats are unobtainable, are expected if students have results to submit.

Other test optional policies, such as those at UC campuses, will apply to in-state applicants for the class of 2022, but there may still be a testing requirement for students applying from out-of-state. Still others, such as USC, have left the door open to possibly extend the one year concession.

In turn, the smartest test takers grasp that the test optional landscape is not static. They will stay informed by monitoring lists like the one we actively update. The class of 2022 will probably see fewer test optional policies than students in the class of 2021, so smart testing behavior is to prepare not for the landscape as it is, but the landscape as it is likely to be.

They Are Planners

Great planners use calendar as a verb. All smart test takers calendar well, and they start by counting in reverse from the fall of senior year. Poor planners, in contrast, tend to disregard real-world timelines and merely think in terms of “taking” tests — isolated events aimlessly scattered across school years. Savvy students, meanwhile, work back from test dates so that proper preparation timelines can take shape. They first frame their entire testing window and then sketch in what they already know — or reasonably expect — will occupy their lives during that period. I guided one sophomore through this exercise this week, and she arrived at a tailored, yet fairly common, starting game plan. Hers looks like this:

  • Take a proctored diagnostic ACT and a proctored diagnostic SAT this summer. (Her PSAT 10, scheduled in the spring of sophomore year, was canceled due to the pandemic, so we decided to get updated SAT results instead of using her PSAT 8/9 scores from freshman year). Compass offers live-online proctored exams on a regular basis.
  • Discuss with a Compass director which exam, ACT or SAT, she’s better-suited for.
  • Take advantage of the open summer weeks to complete individualized, foundational online preparation. (One 90-minute private lesson per week — with assignments between lessons — felt reasonable to her.)
  • Take follow-up practice tests halfway through her summer prep and again at the end of summer to practice implementing the new techniques and content review she’ll cover in lessons with her tutors.
  • Take the first few months of fall 2020 off from tutoring to adjust to a rigorous junior year academic load, which might still include remote learning. Continue practice testing about once a month to maintain familiarity with the content and nature of standardized tests.
  • Resume individualized prep in early winter for her first official exam in February or March of 2021. (College Board recently hinted it may add a January date if demand warrants.)

We also discussed the need to remain nimble, to course-correct as we go, based on her schedule, progress, and test site availability. Now more than ever, flexibility is crucial to adapting to the uncertainties caused by the crisis. If she makes excellent progress towards her target scores with her summer prep, and if test centers reopen and are readily available this fall, we can discuss using a late fall test date for her first official exam. More likely, she’ll stay focused on an exam in spring 2021 that will better capture the academic growth she’ll make throughout the fall. If test seats this fall remain hard to secure, her foundational work over the summer will give her a leg up heading into her fall/winter refresher prep.

The smartest test takers get that the ACT and SAT are not like Subject Tests or AP exams, for which (to put it coarsely) a certain amount of regurgitation of prescribed facts and formulae is necessary to score well. AP and Subject Test takers therefore benefit from synching exams to when subject matter is freshest. While the ACT and SAT require a superficial level of recall (exponent rules, say), they tend to be more skill-based and technique-driven. Baseline prep establishes those skills and techniques and, once effectively learned, they tend to stick. The skills and techniques should be refreshed as a test date nears, but need not be relearned from square one. That’s why the summer before junior year can be a sensible time to invest in preparation even if official testing comes later.

Although colleges have backed off of their Subject Test requirements, several (including a few this particular student is considering) still recommend or consider Subject Tests which we keep track of on this regularly updated list of Subject Test policies. So she has already earmarked next June for Subject Tests. She has at least four potential subjects in mind based on next year’s courses, and we have set a reminder to have her take diagnostic tests through Compass next April to identify her strongest ones. She’ll give Subject Tests an appropriate amount of weight, understanding that if she faces a decision between raising her ACT/SAT scores and taking Subject Tests, the ACT/SAT retest will likely take priority. But with ACT/SAT scores in good shape, strong Subject Test scores can be additive to a testing portfolio.

By the end of next June, she’ll know her GPA through junior year; she’ll have one (or two) official ACT or SAT scores; she’ll have her Subject Tests completed. Having refined her college list by then, she’ll enter the summer by taking inventory of where things stand and will decide if any retesting is necessary. Even if she chooses to apply in an early decision round, she knows she can — and may need to — test over the summer or early fall to reach her goals.

They Are Resilient

Like the student referenced above, smart test takers map out a plan early but are willing to adjust as they go. While staying agile, they also remain persistent. They trust the thoughtful guidance they’ve received, they make rational and informed decisions, and they stay focused on long-term attainable goals they’ve set for themselves. They know test preparation is hard work that involves some frustration and disappointment. A sub-par score along the way won’t derail them. Testing is not a box smart students try to check off the list as soon as possible. Instead, it is integrated into the overall process of getting ready for college — affording students time to grow into their scoring potential.

Cautiously optimistic members of the class of 2022 can reasonably assume that the impact of the pandemic on their testing timelines will be less cataclysmic than it was for the class of 2021. At our spring events, families frequently asked what test date availability will look like through 2020-21, and how that might alter test planning. The conventional best practice, espoused year after year by Compass and college counselors alike, is that most students are typically ready for a first official ACT or SAT by spring of their junior years. By then, students have amassed the academic preparedness to excel, had time to select either the ACT or SAT based on diagnostic testing and evaluation of those results, and devoted enough effort to refine their test taking expertise through tutoring, homework, mock tests, or self-prep. By spring of junior year, at last, students can walk into a test with confidence.

Many students in the class of 2021 dutifully took this advice this year, resisting the temptation to test early. Then, days — if not hours — before the March 2020 SAT, shelter-in-place orders were announced and many test sites were canceled. Subsequent test dates were canceled nationwide. Countless juniors were left without an official score and mounting uncertainty about when they would be able to secure a seat.

In the aftermath of the unprecedented upheaval that their class of 2021 counterparts endured, class of 2022 students were left wondering if they should modify their testing plans. What if the pandemic lingers or spikes, triggering a second wave of test date cancelations? Can we trust the traditional timeline? Or should we test early and often, grab a seat whenever available, deprioritize preparedness to simply get a score — any score — whenever we can?

These questions rightfully weigh heavily and uniquely upon the class of 2022.

At this point, we see compelling enough indicators to suggest the testing experience facing the class of 2022 will not be a repeat of that suffered through by the class of 2021. New testing solutions will be in place for the class of 2022, such as added national test dates and locations, school day testing, online testing, and even possibly at-home testing if necessary.

They Are Driven

Occasionally, students call our offices themselves. They ask great questions about our approach and strike us as some of the most engaged, no-nonsense test takers we know. These students are in search of expertise and first-rate support. Already plenty busy, they are willing to make time to gain mastery of these tests, but they want that investment supported by the best available resources.

Our most committed students take full advantage of what we give them. They leverage the advanced features of Compass’s practice test score reports and use them, either self-guided or with their tutors, to identify their weaknesses. They treat every missed question on a practice test as gold, as it provides a chance to dive deep into understanding why they missed the question, and what they can do differently to get it right next time. They tap into the mind of the test maker until they can anticipate the common traps, the odd wording patterns, and the predictable answer choices. They are open to unlearning bad habits, even if doing so is at first uncomfortable. They are able to re-learn or better learn stale content, even if there’s some pride swallowing involved in refreshing sentence structure rules they first learned in, oh, fifth grade. They put in the consistent practice necessary to bridge the gap between knowing and doing, and between doing sporadically and doing dependably.

The smartest test takers develop a strong rapport with their tutors, because hey, if you’re going to do this, you might as well enjoy your collaborations. They crave quality guidance. They challenge why a certain strategy is better than their current approach even if the new strategy is, at first, tricky to implement. They want advice on how to best spend their Friday evening and Saturday morning before an official test. Some ask why the exam matters at all. For particularly vexing problems, they are willing to spend fifteen minutes deliberating over a bedeviling trap to truly understand why it’s inferior to the correct answer. They might not like the test, but they like to learn. Very few are perfect scorers, but they do put in the evaluated practice to be perfectly in control come test day. They understand there are parts of the exam where gains come easier, and other areas where gains come only with substantial effort. And effort is something they have in abundance.

They Are Sensible

The most rational students don’t get fazed by rumors surrounding the ACT or SAT — especially ones that defy common sense. A few rumors that are swirling around at this early stage for the class of 2022:

  • I don’t need an ACT or SAT score because all of the schools I’m applying to are test optional.
  • ACT section re-testing will help me save time while boosting my superscore, so I’m leaning towards taking the ACT.
  • I heard the final holdouts — Caltech, MIT, and Harvey Mudd — no longer require Subject Tests, Yale won’t consider them for the class of 2021, and Duke just dropped its recommendation. That means I don’t have to take Subject Tests, right?

Taking on these rumors in turn:

  • As mentioned earlier, students may still benefit from submitting scores to test optional colleges, as optional still means that scores are considered as part of holistic review. We strongly suspect (and colleges do, too) that class of 2022 students will have more opportunities to test than class of 2021 students will have had, which is why many of the test optional policies only apply for one admissions cycle. Consult with your Compass director to discuss your individualized testing plans.
  • The ACT had been touting section retesting as a way to reduce unnecessary testing, but plans to offer it this fall are now on hold. If and when this option materializes, there are other components to consider that may make it an unwise choice.  Here is a more detailed article we’ve written on the deeper considerations of section retesting: Another Look at the ACT Updates
  • Unless a school is Subject Test blind, it will still consider or recommend Subject Tests. The “smartest test taker” approach is to research the Subject Test policies of your target schools and see if test dates align with when you’ll be finishing up a rigorous year in a relevant subject.

Who Will Be the Smartest Test Takers From the Class of 2022?

It’s nearly impossible to stay ahead of all the information — while steering clear of the misinformation — swirling around us about college admission testing. The smartest students won’t necessarily try to do so. They’ll instead strive to simplify this exercise by cultivating the traits discussed above. They’ll identify what hurdles lie ahead, and they’ll take them in stride. They’ll seek out first-rate expertise and guidance and ignore the rest. Watch for these students — their behavior gives them away.

Bruce Reed

Bruce graduated from Colby College and has served in leadership roles in education for more than 25 years. Bruce founded our Northern California office in 2004 where he continues to serve as its hands-on leader while also guiding our national team in his broader role as Compass’ Executive Director. Bruce is recognized throughout the Bay Area and beyond as a visionary and passionate voice in the realm of teaching, testing, and educational development. His extensive experience in one-on-one test preparation, college admissions, and professional development makes him a trusted resource for parents and counselors.


  • Sara Fargo says:

    Hi Bruce,

    This is an excellent article, worthy of sharing with many of my families!
    Thank you!


  • Lloyd Paradiso says:

    This article is not only extremely helpful, chock full of sensible, actionable advice, but it is brilliantly written. What a pleasure to read an educator who can actually command the language and so articulately! I look forward to reading more of your generous contributions to the work we all do.
    Lloyd Paradiso

  • Sheetal Seth says:

    Hi Bruce,
    An articulate article. Well written and broken down to very simple basic steps for a student from the class of 2017. It gives us a clear path which we are about to embark. Thank you for that.

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